Talented Diamond Hogs hope to answer early questions

Heston Kjerstad (left) and Dominic Fletcher / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

This is opening weekend for the 2019 Arkansas Razorback baseball season, and barring a change because of wet weather forecasted for this afternoon, today will be opening day.

The Hogs are scheduled to play Eastern Illinois at a noon double header on Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday at Baum-Walker Stadium, and the opener is a game all Razorback baseball fans have longed for since the 2018 season ended on June 28 with a second-place finish for their Hogs to the Oregon State Beavers in the College World Series.

All three games will be streamed on the ESPN App.

Razorback Baseball

Who: vs. Eastern Illinois
When: 12pm Saturday (double) / 1pm Sunday
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
Watch: ESPN App Stream

» See full schedule

The Hogs were a misplayed foul ball away from capturing the school’s first baseball national title on June 27, but that missed opportunity allowed the Beavers to come back and win that game 5-3 and the finale 5-0.

Hog fans will carry a bit of the ache from that loss until Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks do win it all at Omaha, but the prospects of a new season should allow most to push those feelings to the back of their mind.

The Razorbacks should be good again this season; however, they aren’t starting the season in the top 10 as they did a year ago.

Baseball America has the Hogs at No. 18, behind a plethora of SEC squads. Vanderbilt starts the season at No. 1 followed by LSU at No. 2, Florida at No. 4, Mississippi State at No. 9, Ole Miss at No. 13, Georgia at No. 15, and Auburn at No. 17.

While the Razorbacks have four preseason All-SEC performers and potential All-Americans in sophomore infielder Casey Martin, outfielders sophomore Heston Kjerstad, and junior Dominic Fletcher, and senior closing pitcher senior Matt Cronin, the Hogs do have a series of questions on the mound and among the everyday players.

Solutions are on the roster, but which players will fall into place and just how quickly will it happen in the nation’s toughest baseball league is the question.

Van Horn asked for patience from the fans at Monday’s Swatter’s Club meeting, which is a virtue some ardent fans don’t quite understand. Many are already dreaming of another trip to Omaha to get them through the winter, and make no mistake, the Razorbacks themselves have a goal of being one of the final eight once again, too, regardless of where they picked to finish in the league.

The overriding question for the Hogs’ is their starting pitching with the loss of ace Blaine Knight and Kacey Murphy. Junior righty Isaiah Campbell is penciled in as the Friday starter after being a regular starter last year. He opened on the mound 17 times for the Hogs with eight starts against the SEC, four in the NCAA Tournament, and 2 in the College World series. Campbell had a solid 4.26 ERA.

Promising freshman Connor Noland of Greenwood is the No. 2 man of the moment. The right-hander is also in the hunt to be the Razorbacks’ starting quarterback, although he would have to beat out graduate transfer Ben Hicks, who started for Chad Morris as a sophomore and junior at SMU.

Noland has stunned onlookers with his bullpen work, showing command of two different breaking balls and a fastball that also has some dirty movement. Striking out Martin and Kjerstad back-to-back in s a recent session have fans debating whether Noland should just stick to baseball instead of attempting to be a two-sport performer.

While Noland has impressed his coaches and teammates since joining the squad after football season, experienced observers wonder what will become of his considerable velocity when he’s balancing spring football practice, baseball practice, and possible Saturday starts? Noland is schedule to start Saturday.
Junior right-hander Jacob Kostyshock is the planned starter for Sunday, but right-handers Cody Scroggins and Kole Ramage are also in the hunt for the weekend rotation as is lefty Patrick Wicklander, who might work from the bullpen this week.

Van Horn feels the Razorbacks will be strong in the late innings with Cronin, considered by many the nation’s top closer, leading the way. He also likes the look of the bullpen, if the starting pitching solidifies.

In the outfield, Fletcher remains in center, while Kjerstad moves to right field with promising freshman Christian Franklin in left field.

Sophomore Casey Opitz is getting the start behind the plate, but he and senior Zack Plunkett will alternate games at catcher, according to Van Horn.

Martin, a SEC Player of the Year candidate, moves to shortstop this season from third base. Freshman Jacob Nesbit will start off at third base, while junior Jack Kenley opens at second. When senior Trevor Ezell fully recovers from an arm injury, he could take over second allowing Kenley to move to his natural home at third.

First base is a three-way competition between junior Jordan McFarland, a part-time starter last year; sophomore Matt Goodheart, and Ezell, who could play first while recuperating.

The Razorbacks do return several heavy hitters from a batting line-up that was potent until the final series of the College World Series last year, but the entire lineup might not be as deep this season.

Martin will leadoff, followed by Kjerstad. Fletcher will be in the clean-up spot, while Ezell and Goodheart, as a designated hitter, will likely fill the third and fifth spots. The six through nine spots aren’t as solid, according to Van Horn.

Last year the Razorbacks basically played for the big inning at the plate. Van Horn said the team will run and manufacture more this season.

Van Horn said fans might notice differences in the lineup when the Razorbacks head west for a three-game series with USC Feb. 21-23, and in subsequent games as the he and his staff attempt to nail down player’s roles by the time the SEC slate beings March 15-17 against Missouri at Baum-Walker Stadium.